Precession of the Equinox in Christian Revelation
1. Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament contains the following mysterious vision describing the holy city new Jerusalem:
‘The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious jewel; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.’
2. Standard Biblical commentaries, for example those of G.B. Caird and William Barclay,[i] give several explanations of this verse. The notable one for our purpose here is an old tradition which sees the twelve jewels as a cosmic symbol representing the twelve constellations of the zodiac, the path of stars traversed each year by the sun from Aries to Pisces. The unusual thing, however, is that the commentators note the order of the star signs in the foundation jewels is precisely the reverse of their order in the sky. The first course of foundation stones of the new Jerusalem, made of jasper, is understood by tradition to represent Pisces, the last sign of the zodiac. The second course, of sapphire, represents Aquarius, the second last sign, and so through to the twelfth course of jewels, of amethyst, which represents Aries, the first sign of the zodiac.
3. Barclay says that the symbolism of this order is impossible to tell, while Caird speculates that perhaps the reverse order indicates John’s total disavowal of astrology. My reading finds considerably more meaning in the jewels than do the anti-astrological prejudices of traditional theology. In asking why the twelve foundation stones of the holy city of God would match the signs of the zodiac in reverse order, the question I would like to pose is whether any natural phenomenon equates to this mysterious image. The intriguing fact I explore here is that the major cycle of time known as the precession of the equinox not only uses the zodiac signs in reverse order but provides an elegant scientific explanation for the Christian theory of the end times.
4. The twelve jewels are a hidden code embedded at the very centre of the Christian faith, indicating the Revelation has real scientific purpose and scope, revealing how the thinking behind the secret messianic ideas of Christ was grounded in astronomical understanding of the structure of time. This explosive claim suggests that Christian eschatology needs to be completely re-written in astrological terms, setting the return of Christ in the very long time frame of precession and abandoning facile ideas such as rapture in favour of a program to establish a world civilization.
5. Many theologians have regarded Revelation as the most important book in the Bible, seeing behind each verse a mysterious guiding intelligence which requires deep study to even begin to interpret it. Each generation has tended to read the Revelation as a lesson for its own time, making it the subject of more speculation than any other text. Real discernment is needed to make sense of this difficult book, if that is even possible. I suggest here that such an objective is made possible, even compelling, by using the cosmic scheme of precession encoded within the image of the twelve jewels as a starting point for interpreting the message of Christ. This new approach opens up the meeting ground between theology and philosophy in a way that promises real dialogue about the meaning and significance of faith.
6. The image of the foundation jewels gives an intriguing suggestion of the time scale we should be thinking about when we consider the Biblical accounts of the end times through the theological study of eschatology. Precession is the only natural cycle which matches the image of the twelve jewels as the zodiac in reverse order. Through this image John seems to be telling us that the proper time frame for eschatology is the 26,000 year long correspondence between the twelve foundation jewels and the twelve cosmic ages, starting with the Age of Pisces which is now finishing.
7. The equinoxes occur each year on about March 21 and September 21. They are the dates when day and night are of equal length, twelve hours each, marking the points of change in the seasons from the warmer to the cooler months and vice versa, and structuring the annual natural rhythms of the earth. From the perspective of the earth, the sun appears to travel around the path of the zodiac once each year. The point reached by the sun at the northern spring equinox marks the first point of the astrological sign of Aries, but due to precession the stars and the astrological signs have gradually moved out of alignment.
8. Precession of the equinox is a 26,000 year long natural cycle, well known to astronomers in ancient Greece and Egypt as the Great Year or the Platonic Year. As a result of precession, the position in the sky reached by the sun each equinox moves slowly backward around the twelve signs of the zodiac, moving on average through one sign about every 2152 years, and going full circle every 26,000 years. Modern astronomy has found that precession is caused by a slow wobble in the axis of the earth, like the wobble of a spinning top, and has been happening in a steady regular rhythm since the origin of the solar system four billion years ago.
9. Because of precession, the position of the sun against the stars of the zodiac is slowly shifting backwards at a rate of one degree every 71.7 years. At the time of Christ, the March equinox occurred with the sun between the constellations of Pisces and Aries, and the signs of astrology exactly matched the stars. Over the last two thousand years, due to precession, the sun’s position at the March equinox has shifted back almost 30 degrees through the constellation of Pisces. The equinoctial point will move into Aquarius in about 2150 AD and over the next 2150 or so years the equinox will precess through Aquarius. In purely scientific terms, this is what is meant by the idea that we are approaching the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
10. This cosmic framework has been the basis of speculation about the correspondence between the Age of Pisces and the age of Christianity. The conception of the age as a roughly 2000 year long period also matches the old Christian myths which interpret the history of the world over 6000 years since Adam with the current 2000 year old age of the church due to be followed by the 1000 year reign of Christ. This framework of the ages also corresponds to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 24:14 that ‘This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed to the whole world as a witness to the nations, and then the end will come’. Only now in our globalised world are we in a situation where the gospel has been preached to all, in that all nations have at least heard of Christ. Only now are we at the point that Jesus called ‘the end of the age.’(Matt 13:39)
11. The Biblical vision of the new age tells us ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’ The city will be ‘ruled by he who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’ With ‘the Lamb for its lamp’, ‘the nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure… The river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, will flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of its street. On either side of the river will grow the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the tree serving to heal the nations.’
12. This vision of the holy city is among the most beautiful, powerful, profound and evocative images in the Bible, and is central to the hope and faith of the church. My sense is that this vision was the inspiration for Christ to give himself as a sacrifice, ensuring that the coded explanation in terms of precession would be left for the church to consider and understand in due course. The problem in coming to such an understanding however, is that the Christian doctrine of the apocalypse and the end times is highly problematic. Many Christians who express interest in the book of Revelation are at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, espousing a conservative Biblicism based on tracts about the rapture and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Fundamentalist readings of Revelation are mired in mythical traditions which have done much to bring Christianity into disrepute, as many of their miraculous claims are incompatible with the findings of science. I want to clearly distance myself from such magical and unscientific readings, while retaining a sense of wonder and awe before the possibility of a real deep meaning in the text.
13. Because of the impossibility of fundamentalist readings, modern historical-critical theology tends to disregard the vision of Revelation entirely, treating it as a fantastic dream rather than a true message from God. The skeptical view of Revelation puts it on a level with the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood, beautiful parables with a deep symbolic meaning but no historical truth. Some readers say John made it up himself, dismissing his claim in Revelation 1 that his vision came from Christ. My interpretation seeks to sit between skepticism and fundamentalism, by trying to understand Revelation as a prophecy from Christ which can be reconciled with modern thought. Using the vision of the foundation jewels as an entry point to this approach seeks to maintain respect for both revelation and reason. My scientific interest in astronomy has led me to this new interpretation which is intended to reconcile science and Christianity through a new approach to cosmology.
14. Modern thought tends to avoid the central question posed by Revelation, namely the nature of the relation between God and the world. A cogent answer to this question must sit squarely on a scientific foundation, looking to build a natural theology on the platform of modern science by asking how God is revealed in our cosmos. The task is to join the empirical findings of science with the deep understanding of reality suggested by Christian faith. Grounded in this new interpretation of the twelve jewels in terms of precession, I believe the book of Revelation provides a cosmic context in which we can set our modern thinking, providing the key to developing a rational faith. For my reading, this vision sets Jesus Christ right up there with Galileo, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as one of the principal sources for our thought on scientific cosmology.
15. Interpreting the twelve jewels as a coded reference to precession of the equinox opens up the cosmic dimension of the Bible in an entirely new way. After some considerable study of it, my belief is that the image of the twelve jewels offers us a key to the relation between time and eternity and an explanation of what Jesus meant by the end of the age. However, we have been unable to see this key for a range of complex cultural reasons. Scientific astronomy has long had the knowledge to interpret this passage, but because modern science has rejected the old earth-centred cosmology of the church, science has been unwilling even to look at the possibility of a rational basis for revelation, and has been unable to refine away the medieval dross of fantastic images to find the vein of true gold within.
16. In purely scientific terms, precession provides the structure of time for the earth against the galaxy. The problem for science is that precessional cosmology provides a natural vision of the whole based on our perspective as earthly human beings, rather than on the objective universality favoured by science. Taking precession as the starting point for cosmology is like a Copernican revolution in reverse, putting the earth back at the centre of our view of things. The justification for this reversal, following Heidegger,[ii] is that we are human beings with human perspectives, and the earth is for us the context of meaning. Heidegger’s Being and Time, although failing to provide a clear way forward, gave a philosophical deconstruction of the cultural de-centering that accompanied the Copernican revolution and provides a logical basis to compare the scientific and theological worldviews.
17. The problem of the modern worldview grounded in science and technology is that the scientific reaction against faith has created a value-free anomic culture. Having de-throned the geocentric perspective, science has been so captivated by its big discoveries of galaxies, the big bang, and so on, that it has become strangely uncentred, unable to integrate its vision with a human scale of meaning and purpose. Precessional cosmology recaptures the focus on the medium scale cosmic question of how our earth fits in the rhythms of our galaxy. I suggest that this focus underpins the secret code of the twelve jewels, and furthermore, provided the energetic impetus for the cosmic spiritual vision of Christ.
18. Christian commitment to truth must fully respect science for its exploration of facts such as the evolution of life on earth and the nature of physical reality. Science has given us whole new perspectives on reality, for example in astronomy, quantum physics and genetics. Scientific discovery is in this respect the bedrock of thought. However, facts by themselves do not provide values, meaning or purpose for our lives. For our values to have integrity and coherence, they must sit within a unified system of thought. In the Christian tradition, this systematic unity is understood in terms of the grace of God. The claim is that we can only understand the meaning and purpose of life by setting scientific knowledge within the broader frame of grace as explored by religion.
19. Grace is like the tree of life - if our lives are like the branches of the tree, then God is like the roots. Without the connection to our roots provided by the grace and love of God through Christ we cannot hope to find real meaning. I believe that much of the trouble of our secular atheistic society today stems from its loss of this connection with the divine source symbolised by the tree of life. My goal here is to explore how the vision of the foundation jewels can enable us to frame science with cosmic grace and plant the tree of life at the centre of the holy city.
20. Theology must also be framed by science. To get a sense of the scientific context for grace, it is essential to observe the incredible complexity of human existence. One way to place theology within a scientific frame is by giving some comparative images to understand the scale of nature. For example, our earth compared to the sun is like a pea ten metres from an adult person. On this scale of the sun as a human, Jupiter would be an orange forty metres away, Pluto would be a lentil 400 metres away, and the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be another person almost half way around the world. I like to imagine God in anthropomorphic terms as holding our solar system like a coin in his palm, but even that immense image does not reveal the scale of things. Our solar system is very isolated within our galaxy. If the twelve billion kilometer-wide orbit of Pluto were a one inch disk, the size of a small coin, our Milky Way galaxy would be 4000 kilometres across - the size of Australia. In relative terms our solar system is like a small coin in the middle of a football pitch with the next star at the entrance gate, and our galaxy, just one of billions in the universe, the size of the surrounding continent. In this isolation our solar system has been almost totally stable, providing an effectively permanent rhythmic context over the four billion years of the evolution of life.
21. Our universe is a harsh place. It truly is a great wonder how humanity has evolved on our planet, to reflect on the laws of nature, and to build our global civilization, even with all its faults. Rare Earth - Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe[iii] brings together recent scientific findings to show that microbial life may be common in the cosmos, but complex life – let alone intelligence - requires such an incredible combination of factors as to make it seem impossible, except that here we are, as it were by the grace of God. Life on earth has evolved over four billion years. Over that long period, life has relied on our planet staying at a fairly constant temperature to sustain liquid oceans, never freezing over or boiling away. For the first three and a half billion years, all life was microscopic, with the first visible organisms only evolving 560 million years ago when enough oxygen had been made in the air. Our moon has given us constant regular seasons by regulating the tilt of the earth, and plate tectonics has created the shallow seas in which life evolved. Our planet has been whacked several times by comets big enough to kill all dominant life forms, but Jupiter has shielded us from more frequent collisions with space rocks. So here we are today, able to reflect on precession and grace.
22. Viewing the foundation jewels in terms of precession of the equinox provides a cosmic human context for the relation between time and eternity. The Great Year period of 26,000 years is very long, but as 2 Peter 3:8 tells us, for God a thousand years is as a day. Thinking in scientific terms of evolutionary biology, the cycle of precession has been going on unchanged for four billion years - that is 150,000 Great Years – since the moon collided with the earth and stabilized the seasons. Over this immense time the regular stable long term cycle of precession has provided a key part of the cosmic niche for all life on earth. Just as all genes have adapted to the regular background rhythms of the sun and moon, forming deep and subtle harmonic relations that have accumulated over the long history of life, so too our genes have adapted to the slower regular cycles of the planets and of the precession of the equinox.[iv] Genes with a subtle harmony with these rhythms have a miniscule advantage which over the aeons of time has been enough to become dominant. In cumulative adaptation to fit its niche, life effectively adapts to the telos or purpose of God, who may be considered as the niche of the world.
23. It is intriguing that Jesus Christ, known as the Alpha and Omega or beginning and end, lived precisely at the beginning and end of the 26,000 year long Great Year, at the moment when the signs of the zodiac directly matched the stars. It is interesting to speculate about the Christ energy of the logos as incarnating a cosmic harmony between the earth and the galaxy, symbolized by the moment of correspondence between the signs of astrology based on the tropical zodiac and the stars of astronomy seen in the sky. Building on this interpretation of Christ as cosmic logos, I suggest that Jesus articulated a profoundly true vision of the challenge of salvation, and presented this challenge as a program which we can access in the Bible.
24. Starting from his cosmic vision of the reality of God as the basis of life, and of the danger of mammon as the threat to human relations with God, Jesus understood that his personal martyrdom for our sake was a necessary sacrifice to demonstrate his unity with God and the truth of his words. The secret code of the twelve jewels suggests that behind his decision to turn to Jerusalem, to offer himself for crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities, was a cosmic vision, founded on his personal relationship with God the Father.
25. The unique thing about Jesus Christ was that he had a fullness of relationship with God which others can only look on with awe and wonder. This immense and deep loving bond with God was at the source of the miraculous resurrection energy of his life, showing us the path of love, reconciliation and forgiveness, bound together in the truth of God. As Saint Paul said in verse 1:19 of his letter to the Colossians: ‘God wanted all perfection to be found in Christ, and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything on heaven and everything on earth.’ This vision of cosmic reconciliation and consummation demands an integrated story of the place of humanity within the cosmos, of precisely the type given by the understanding of the twelve jewels in terms of precession.
26. So the question follows, how are we to interpret the prophecy of the holy city in Revelation 21? The Bible tells us the holy city will be a vast cube, with each edge 1,500 miles long. I like to dream of this as a vast engineering project unifying the world in peace, just as building the pyramids unified ancient Egypt. I envision the location for the new Jerusalem as an international site in the open ocean, located in the South Pacific Ocean at the point on the globe exactly opposite old Jerusalem. Relying on the scientific fact that fresh water floats on salt water, the Aquarian age could be a time when humanity will colonise the oceans, building great cities above immense deep dams of fresh water. By building freshwater dams in the ocean we can solve the world’s water crisis and restore the ecological balance by reducing human pressure on the land. The ancient Romans called their water engineers Aquarians or water bearers, a title highly relevant to the contemporary Aquarian need. I think of the twelve jewels of the holy city as marking twelve foundation sites within the open ocean, perhaps laid out on the model of the constellation of Aquarius just as the Notre Dame cathedrals of France are located on a plan that models the constellation of Virgo.[v]
27. The precessional framework puts the holy city into a long time frame, looking forward to further thousands or even millions of years of human evolution, perhaps even to the move of humanity to the solar system and the stars. I have found it helpful to think of the two thousand year long ages in terms of astrological lore. Traditionally[vi] each sign is associated with a human activity, Pisces with belief, Aquarius with knowledge, Capricorn with use, Sagittarius with vision, Scorpio with desire, Libra with balance, Virgo with analysis, Leo with will, Cancer with feeling, Gemini with thinking, Taurus with having and Aries with being. Applying this scheme to precession, we are now reaching the end of the Piscean age of belief and entering the Aquarian age of knowledge. In two thousand years the Aquarian governing principle will be succeeded by the Capricornian age of use, then by the ages of vision, desire, etc.
28. It is often said that Christ left no writings, even though he vies with Shakespeare as the most cited author in Books of Quotations. The tantalizing last line in the Gospel of John tells us that ‘there were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written’. There must have been oral traditions from Christ which were recorded by the early Christian community. It is highly likely that the book of Revelation reflects such an oral tradition from Jesus, considering the strong compatibility between the powerful visions in Revelation and the vivid apocalyptic imagery of the gospels, such as the stories of the sheep and the goats, the clouds of heaven and the wheat and the tares.
29. I like to imagine Jesus sitting in the garden in the cool of the evening with his disciples, just talking about theology, asking questions about the meaning of time, love, the connection between God and the world, eternity, and how fallen humanity can possibly hope to escape the threat of wrath and emerge victorious into the kingdom of grace. These themes were developed in the New Testament into a sophisticated theology which had thought in depth about the nature of reality and time. The Christian perspective suggests that Jesus was at the centre of these discussions, as the messianic genius of Christianity. Considering his link with the Magi, and his early time in Egypt after fleeing from Herod, I believe it is entirely likely that Jesus was familiar with the deep spiritual traditions of the ancient star religions of Egypt and Chaldea.
30. Why does it matter if the Revelation is from Christ? If this last book in the Bible does in fact contain a secret key to our salvation, then this question is of the highest importance. If we want to understand what it means to claim that Jesus is the Son of God, then we should read such writings with great respect, looking for a direct link to his thinking. The Christians view of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God means he connected our fallen human world to the ultimate truth of God, showing the path to redemption through the power of love. Jesus is the word, the door, the vine, the lamb. An essential part of his messianic secret is the claim that Jesus had a visionary understanding of history. This historical dimension is expressed in the creedal image of Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, waiting to return to judge the living and the dead.
31. In my own thinking about theology I have found the frame of reference provided by precession to be helpful as a way to interpret the relation between nature and grace in terms of the Christian Trinity. The Father, the eternal and infinite creator God of the universe, became incarnate on our planet in the life of the Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus points us to the Father in the same way all successful creatures point to the ecological niche in which they find fulfillment, but Jesus’ niche is the human place in the cosmos. Meanwhile, the relation between Father and Son continues to reverberate in our world in the work of the Holy Spirit.
32. The expectation of a consummation of reality, when the evangelical work of the church in preparing the way of the Lord will be vindicated through the return of the Son, envisages a time when God will be known as ‘all in all’. This ‘all in all’ must mean that humanity will understand our true place in the cosmos, that nature will finally be suffused with grace. In the words of Rev 21:3, the dwelling of God will be with humanity. The interpretation of the jeweled foundations of the holy city in terms of the Great Year coheres with this prophecy that God will dwell with humanity, suggesting we need to understand this immense natural cycle if we are to learn truly to live in the image of God.
[i] The Rev. William Barclay, D.D., The Revelation of John (Volume Two), The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1959 (The Daily Study Bible); George Bradford Caird, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, The Revelation of St John the Divine, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1966
[ii] eg Being and Time, Basic Writings
[iii] D Brownlee & P Ward, 2003, ISBN: 0387952896
[iv] The Cosmic Clocks by Michel Gauquelin, provides a framework for evolutionary astrological genetics.
citing The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral
by Louis Charpentier
[vi] eg The Astrologer's Handbook’ by Frances Sakoian and Louis S. Acker